There are few things as fierce as a mother’s love – and few women as fearless as Charlize Theron. Here, the actress tells Jan Janssen just how she’s embracing her greatest role to date
In person, Charlize Theron is far more light-hearted than her film roles would suggest. She speaks with ease, and a relaxed sense of confidence, although there’s a hint in her eyes that says she’s ready to fire back if provoked. Today, she’s looking fabulous as ever, her career in high gear and “happier than I ever expected to be” as the mother of two adopted children: son Jackson, six, and daughter August, two.
“I waited a long time to become a mother,” says the Mad Max actress. “It has exceeded all my expectations. It’s such a beautiful feeling to hold your children in your arms and be able to watch them grow and discover the world.
“It’s changed my life completely,” she continues. “Before, when there were no children in my life, my work always came first. I also had the freedom to be able to take off and travel for three or four months at a time by myself. But even though I can’t do that anymore, I’m so incredibly happy to spend my time with my children. Every day that I wake up I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with them and how I’m going to make them happy.”
Theron is still enjoying the critical and commercial success of her summer 2017 film, Atomic Blonde, which has given Charlize her own personal action film franchise as both star and producer. She spent five years developing the project, which she intended to be a vehicle allowing her to play a weaponised extension of her own rather formidable persona. A high-octane mixture of martial arts and espionage, the film showed that Theron is capable of any kick, punch or lethal blow her male counterparts might demonstrate on screen.
“I wanted to take the concept of a spy thriller and turn it on its head,” she explains. “I liked the physicality of the story.”
Fighting the stereotypes that come with being a beautiful actress, Theron radically reinvented herself as a Hollywood star when she took on the role of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). The former model gained 30lbs to play Wuornos and altered her appearance in such a way as to be almost unrecognisable in the role. It was a huge risk, but it paid off. Her performance was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar and enabled her to escape the gilded studio cage that confined her to so-called ‘girlfriend’ or ‘sexy young thing’ roles.
“I’m not simply an artist for hire,” she explains. “There is absolutely nothing mechanical in my choices and the way I interpret my roles. Do I take risks? Maybe I do. But it’s the only way to grow personally and professionally. I always try to choose characters that will reveal the most authentic parts of myself.”
Theron credits her mother, Gerda – still her closest friend – for having inspired her to take a more fearless and adventurous approach to life.
“She has taught me to stand up for myself and be courageous, and that’s exactly what I’m going to give my children,” she says. “I’m not someone who indulges in self-pity and I hate it if I ever start feeling sorry for myself. I was raised in a way that I should never allow myself to be the victim, but to take responsibility for my decisions and live as boldly as possible.
“My mother has given me a lot of guidance on that level. She’s someone who believes in not dwelling on the past and getting on with your life. I’m trying to live on those terms.”
This is the kind of sensibility that Charlize hopes to impart to her two children. Adoption turned out to be the best path to parenthood for Theron following the collapse of her decade-long relationship with British actor Stuart Townsend in 2010. Their break-up hit Charlize hard, and revealed the deeply vulnerable side that her bold exterior tends to mask. She didn’t work for the next two years.
“I’d been in serious relationships from the time I was 19, and suddenly I became single for the first time in my life. I had to make a conscious effort to rediscover myself and it was hard.”
She admits she is someone who always found extreme comfort through relationships, but stops herself: “Now I realise there’s something really powerful in being OK with being alone, especially for women.”
Charlize would eventually return to active screen duty with Young Adult, and surprised everyone, even some of her closest friends, when she adopted a four-month-old baby boy in 2012, whom she would name Jackson. After welcoming the toddler into her life, the actress was exultant: “I want to be that example for my son. I want him to grow up with a mom that he could see and look at her life with all the mistakes and with all the failures and all the flaws and say, ‘My mom lived an authentic life. That was the life she wanted to live.’”
Three years later she would adopt August, now two, and Theron says she has found motherhood to be a generally joyous challenge. She grew up as an only child with a violent, alcoholic father whom her mother would eventually kill in self-defence when Charlize was 15, after he had threatened them both with a shotgun in a drunken rage. (South African police never pressed charges against her mother). The incident plainly left psychological scars and in her late twenties, she went into therapy after years of denial. But this previously solid force has not only embraced the emotions of that traumatic event, and overcome them; she has now dedicated herself to becoming the most loving parent she can be.
“I didn’t grow up with siblings, and had no idea of the beauty that siblings have with each other. It really is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed,” she says, “to see how much they love each other and to see how excited they are to see each other. It’s really beautiful.”
Her children have also helped Charlize embrace that softer side that she has long tended to hide from plain sight.
“Being a mother has struck me at a very deep level,” she admits.
“My mother showed me by her own example that you need to take responsibility for your own happiness – and be tough, pick yourself up off the floor when times are hard and embrace life to the fullest. I would be very happy as a mother myself to be able to pass on those values to my children.”